How to Keep Citizens Informed Amidst Confusion and Uncertainty
By Todd Miller
Tuesday, August 31, 2021 | Comments
COVID-19 cases are surging as a result of the fast-spreading Delta variant. Slowing vaccination rates and large gatherings are also contributing to the strain’s rapid rise, threatening a return to normalcy. On top of that, guidance and recommendations are changing yet again, along with concerns about the rise of mental health issues, leaving people uncertain about what they should do to protect themselves and their loved ones.

In light of these developments, public health and safety agencies, emergency management teams and local governments have to elevate their efforts to keep residents healthy, safe and informed. Public officials must implement the right processes and infrastructure to communicate effectively, which includes being consistent, transparent and timely with all outbound messaging. In addition, public-safety authorities must communicate in such a way that builds trust with residents and cultivates the belief that notifications sent by public-safety authorities should be read.

By sticking to best practices and leveraging modern technology, leaders can achieve this vision without adding complexity to everyday operations. In particular, three best practices – sending targeted communication, protecting vulnerable community members and directing residents to trustworthy information sources – are essential to provide guidance and foster trust.

Targeted Communications
COVID-19 is affecting different parts of the country in different ways. Many hospitals in areas with low vaccination rates are currently overwhelmed and struggling to find enough beds for patients. Meanwhile, areas with high vaccination rates are hoping for a fall season marked by a large-scale return to classrooms and office spaces.

Given this reality, no one playbook will work for all local public health and safety officials to follow. What Florida needs is very different from what Idaho needs. Similarly, what might work in one county might not be effective in another, depending on the choices residents have made and the beliefs they hold about the pandemic. Consequently, public officials have to think more carefully about how to reach the most community members whenever they update public health guidance.

Rather than send broad, generic messages out to everyone in a specified area, leaders should take a more targeted approach that involves segmenting audiences based on the unique challenges they are facing. One of the best ways to do this is through a critical communication and collaboration system that enables users to group residents based on certain characteristics.

For instance, public-safety groups could segment people by geographic location, demographic factors, mobility needs or other variables and only send messages to individuals who fit certain criteria. So, if someone lived in location with a high number of COVID-19 cases where an outbreak recently occurred, public health officials could warn that person of possible exposure and potentially prevent further spread.

Public officials can also use communication systems to provide omni-channel communications, such as short message service (SMS), email, social media, website updates and voice calls, each with a dedicated purpose. For instance, SMS and automated voice calls, both likely to attract residents’ attention, could be used to alert people of major outbreaks or crisis situations. In contrast, email could be used to share less urgent healthy practices and community reminders, such as road closures and registration deadlines. Also, depending on the region, translations in key languages can be sent to reach residents in their primary tongues.

Mass communication systems are particularly valuable right now for cutting through generic updates from local media broadcasters and misinformation from social media platforms where false news can spread rapidly. Through wireless mass communication systems, state and local officials can send alerts directly to community members rather than let misinformation spread across social media.

The best communication systems also provide recipients the flexibility to choose how they receive updates from public officials. In some cases, it can make sense to implement opt-in keywords specific to certain locations so that residents in those areas can choose to receive highly targeted messaging. Doing so increases engagement and the likelihood that people will pay attention when notifications come through.

Another powerful use case for mass notification systems involves gathering information from residents. For example, public officials can launch polls through these platforms to get a better sense for who is in quarantine or currently sick with COVID-19. Public health leaders can use this data to update guidance for specific areas or alert other stakeholders of outbreaks in the community.

Outside of mass communications systems, public-safety and emergency management apps are another way municipalities can deliver location-based alerts at scale to community members. Moreover, app users can provide details about themselves, their family members and their households, such as medical and mental health information, emergency contacts and more, that could be helpful down the road to emergency responders. The key here is breaking down barriers that often exist across public-safety and emergency management; by leveraging a common platform, information can more easily be exchanged and disseminated.

The common thread between these technologies is that they give public officials a simple, cost-effective way to engage with their community and send tailored messages based on their needs and location. When people come to trust that local officials only send relevant information, they are more likely to heed messages that could affect their well-being and safety.

Protecting the Vulnerable
The delta variant is highly contagious, making it hard for public health and safety officials to keep all community members safe. The stress of COVID-19 has also increased the number of incidents related to mental health. As a best practice, local leaders should take proactive step with residents who are especially vulnerable to safeguard their health and safety.

Fortunately, there are public-safety software solutions available that residents and their families can opt-in to provide additional data to be used only for emergency preparedness and response. A recent national survey from Rave Mobile Safety showed that 85% of respondents would be willing to provide information to public-safety officials where they thought it would improve the emergency response. These systems allow public health and safety departments to identify people who are at risk for COVID-19, or likely to struggle with mental illness, to offer assistance and support.

On the user side, residents can upload information about pre-existing conditions, medications, transportation needs and other specifics that could come in handy in an emergency. Leveraged in communities large and small, these systems allow public officials to search based on specific criteria, which can then be used to create targeted campaigns and assistance for vulnerable populations. In this way, safety profile systems become a long-term repository of rich information that has the power to keep people safe from harm.

Ensuring Reliable Information
Residents today need to know where they can go for reliable information. Local officials have to serve as these reliable sources themselves or point residents to other trusted authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or local health departments. Only then can residents make the best possible decisions for themselves and their families.

What makes this so challenging is that people are distrustful of state and local authorities right now, and there is so much noise that often prevents the truth from getting out. According to another 2021 survey report from Rave, only 22% of respondents said they completely trust the information they receive from local officials. Less than a third said they trust updates about COVID-19 guidelines, compared to just over half saying they trust evacuation orders related to severe weather.

The survey uncovered insights about what would make community members trust information from public officials more. Fifty percent said they would prefer to receive information directly from officials, and 34% said they would want that information to come in a manner they choose such as text, email and voice. Public authorities should make sure that they are sending regular updates about COVID-19 and that those updates reach residents in a way that aligns with their preferences and needs.

Furthermore, messaging has to be consistent and proactive. Due to the ever-evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials should provide local active case numbers with some degree of regularity, so people understand the current state of the situation at all times. When new developments arise, officials should also be quick to share the news with residents to stay in front of misleading rumors.

Leaders should strive to be transparent regarding the current data regarding the delta variant spreading in their communities and give people facts that they can use to make intelligent decisions. A lack of transparency can cultivate skepticism, which is hard for authorities to overcome.

Facilitating Communications and Trust
At a time when local governments and public officials are overwhelmed, technology can alleviate much of the burden related to reopening updates, disseminating public health guidance, keeping vulnerable people safe and communicating in an engaging way. In combination with thoughtful strategic planning, mass communication systems and safety registries make it easy to send useful notifications at scale and gather crucial medical information directly from residents. Over the long term, these technologies also build trust and confidence amongst community members that local authorities have their best interest at heart as we navigate through these challenging times.

Todd Miller is senior vice president (SVP) of strategic programs at Rave Mobile Safety.

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